Actual Play – Bloodstone Idol (1/7/2011)

MC: Sean Nittner
Players: Alex Miller, Charles Stone, Meghan Miller and Brendan McGuigan
System: Dungeon World

I was really excited about running Dungeon World for Alex and Charles. Specifically because I had a good experience playing it with Shaun Hayworth and I hoped that maybe it would be THE system we ended up using to pick back up a D&D campaign we stared 20 years ago. Sadly, the game was very frustrating to me, which really surprised me based on my past experience and the many good things I have heard about it.

This game I had a much longer session than last time (6 hours instead of the previous 1.5), saw many more rolls, played with more characters and generally felt I had more exposure to the system. I had high hopes and part of my frustration (which is mostly what I’m going to write about here) came from the disappointment that no, this won’t be the game we can use long term.

I’m not going to talk about the adventure much. It’s the sample one in the back of the book (Bloodstone Idol) and as adventures go, I think the DW guys did some fun stuff with it. They pose questions I found interesting to ask in the game, and created a situation with some nuance that I enjoyed.

In summary here are the highs and lows of the game. To its detriment:

  • Dungeon World lacks desperation and scarcity. This created difficulty creating motivations in play and during character creation.
  • Dungeon World stacks a tactical system on top of a narrative resolution, slowing down and confusing the narration.
  • Dungeon World moves are tropes taken from D&D and sometimes feel shoe-horned into Apocalypse World moves.

To its credit:

  • Dungeon World is very well written, and conveyed how the game should be played clearly and encouragingly.
  • Dungeon world give the MC an agenda and principles that are excellent tools for any GM(MC) in any game.

A lack of desperation

Right off the bat, there is something that Apocalypse World (AW) has that Dungeon World (DW) lacks, and that is desperation. To DW’s credit, it doesn’t claim to have this desperation, but that still affects me a lot when running a game.

Here’s what I mean by desperation. There is a fundamental scarcity in AW that means that ever action has a consequence. You kill Dremmer, the custodian of the town well because he keeps giving you muddy water and saving the best stuff for his people? Fine, now who is going to operate the well? Church Head could do it, but he’s that drowning lung disease everyone in the flats is catching and needs help before he can work it by himself. The Carpark has antibiotics, but they hate you over there after that last job…

That scarcity means that even when the players completely succeed in their goals, there is story to be told because the world is so tight that everything they do creates future interesting, compelling and relevant situations. I can imagine an AW game where the players succeed at everything they try (rolling 10+) and still end the game neck deep in problems…that they caused!

DW, because it isn’t post-apocalyptic, because it engages the tropes of D&D, lacks that desperation and scarcity. There is an ork with a pie. What is the simple solution? Kill the ork! Nobody cares. Even if they do, it will be more orks, you can kill them too! A patron offers you 100 gold to go on a mission for him. You pocket his money and then decide to do the job or not? What is he going to do if you don’t? If he had the military might to take you out, why not just do the job himself? Sure, you can create repercussion to all of these choices, but the setting does not reinforce them, in fact it pretty much encourages play in a world without repercussions or scarcity… I mean, you’re SUPPOSED to kill the ork!

How did this come up in our game: I felt the characters motivation to explore the Bloodstone Idol and stop Grunloch were non-existent from the get go. The adventure had several hooks, questions to ask the players to get them invested, which I used. The process took about an hour, and mirrored the “backstory” process that I learned from Brian Isikoff. I asked the Kithraset (the elven fighter) about the fight she with Kroth, the Icescale Lizardman and found out that she not only lost the fight but in doing so lost the shipment she was guarding. Great, now the Kithraset wants to get back both the stolen goods and her pride! Cool, that works, it gets them started and out the door, but it’s single nudge, not a constant and evolving force. There was nobody else (besides the PCs) in the adventure to keep pushing. It’s the nature of a dungeon crawl. You’re away from society. AW puts the dungeon smack dab in the middle of society (what’s left of it).

I could tell this was a problem when Alex kept asking the question “why are we here again? What are we doing?” Some players remembered, but that question itself told me motivations weren’t clear and enforced. The players kept wondering about just leaving rather than continuing on to find Grundloch (the guy they were supposed to stop). I wasn’t annoyed by the question, but it re-enforced for me that in AW the PCs exist within a setting integral to them. In DW, just like in D&D the PCs exist independent of their environment and to me that means more work for the GM (or MC) to constantly provide impetus for them to act.

Tactics stacked on top of a Narrative

Here is the real meat and potatoes problem that I have with Dungeon World. The game uses the dice mechanic from Apocalypse World, but betrays its intended use. What does that mean?
In AW, the dice will generate one of three results:

  • On a 10+, the PC achieved their intent and play follows from their success.
  • On a 7-9, the PC either achieves their intent with some significant consequence or achieves a worse version of their intent. In the first case play follows both from their success AND the consequence (often creating two new narratives). In the latter case, it follow from their muddled success.
  • On a 6-, the PC does not achieve their intent and the MC makes hard move, which generally means the world is resisting the change they are trying to make, often in a violent or otherwise nasty way. Play follows from the cause of their failure (which is generally some external factor, not the character’s incompetence) and the results of their failure (the hard move).

Regardless of outcome, the dice indicate a change in the narrative that is inherently rewarding because it is a response to the character’s action. Trying to convince a warlord to bring vanquish the bastards in Carpark? Roll a 7. Sure, he’ll do it, but wants you paying tribute to him. Where is that pretty sister of yours?

Some of Dungeon World works like this. When you act to Defy Danger and leap over a chasm and clutch onto a giant idol for instance, or Parley with a goblin to make him king if he lets you pass safely; then you could get all of those results, in nearly the exact same fashion as AW.

The game adds a combat system on top of that though. So when you try to stab said goblin, instead of a 10+ resulting in his last dying words being spat at you, you roll Damage minus his armor and subtract from his HP. If he lives… we move onto the next exchange. What? Why?

This bothers me for two reasons. First, it means that we’re not setting stakes any more, we’re doing task resolution? Do I stab him, yes or no? Task resolution means that we’re making meaningless rolls of the dice to generate results that don’t push forward the narrative. At least until the goblin finally drops… or you do.

Twice my players tried this move. “I’m standing next to the edge, when the goblin charges as me, I step out of the way and throw him over.” They succeeded, rolled damage and I described him landing on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. Not thrown over the edge. Why not? They didn’t do enough damage. On a 10+ he should have gone sailing, but my interpretation of the rules told me otherwise. That resulted in a very unsatisfying resolution for the players.

The second reason, which is a really big deal for me is risk-aversion vs. risk-taking. In AW, you know that if you get a 10+ you’re going to get what you want (more or less) and even on a 7+ you’ll get some version of it. The characters are meant to be hyper competent. In DW, however, since a 10+ doesn’t guarantee success, but a 6- does guarantee failure, they players very quickly did some mental math and decided it would be better in many cases for them to do anything. I told them if they did nothing while in danger, it was the same as if they rolled a 6-, that bad things would happen to them, so they took action, but often begrudgingly. They weren’t feeling rewarded for their actions and so stopped being inclined to take them.

DW tells players to be great heroes and is written as though they have the competence of their AW counterparts, but they don’t. So not only is it foddering a risk-averse play style, it is lying to the players and the MC.

Both as MC and from my players (we talked about this for hours after the game), we enjoyed the moves that were written with a narrative resolution (e.g. Parley or Spout Lore) and very much disliked the tactical options.

We had some discussion about how you would differentiate those who are better in combat (like the Fighter hitting you with a sword vs. the Wizard hitting you with his stick) and I was stumped at the time but realized after thinking about it, that isn’t a concern at all in AW. The Gunlugger is clearly a combat monster, he doesn’t need to roll a d10 damage vs. a wizard rolling a d4 damage to prove that. He has moves and weapons that make him a menace without any kind of post-roll resolution.

Shoe-horned moves

Dungeon World borrows tropes from D&D and then makes AW style moves out of them. That is groovy, or at least I thought it was groovy, until I kept wondering what move we should make.

When the thief tried to make an offer to the goblin, but lied to him, I thought Parley was the move to use, but Parley assumes that you are offering something they want or need. The question here is whether or not the thief could tell a convincing lie so they goblin believed he had something he wanted.

In AW this would have been a no-brainer. You’re trying to tell a lie without getting caught and the deal depends on him believing that lie, you’re acting under fire. Simple. In DW though, the move “Defy Danger” is tied to dexterity. Now, despite the fact that the thief could do just fine with roll+dex (he was a thief after all), Dexterity in no way seemed appropriate to the move. Cool would have been just fine.

Later when the thief wanted to sneak we saw he had moves for picking locks or pockets, for finding and disarming traps, etc but not for sneaking around. Our first idea was just to have him roll to “Defy Danger” to sneak in but then realized he was scouting and it should really be “Discern Realities”. This kind of confusion, where we eventually found the moves to use came up several times and was frustrating.

In Apocalypse World I have always felt the basic moves covered all the normal things you would want to do and the playbook moves were awesome stuff that made my eyes go wide when I say “I can do this? Awesome!” In DW, we scrambled to find moves we could use to fulfill the tropes of D&D. The wizard kept asking “where is my ‘feather fall’ spell?” and generally wondering why he couldn’t do more with magic. Trying to capture the D&D tropes may have been part of our problem. Since we saw many of them (Pick pockets, hit points, magic missile, etc) we expected to find them all. The end result was feeling caged by the moves, rather than empowered by them.

Well written

Despite my frustrations, Dungeon World is very well written. It speaks to the players and conveys how to play the game in an evocative voice while still being clear and not alienating readers who doesn’t feel “hip” enough to understand the jargon. I would live to see Sage and Adam re-write Apocalypse World with this in mind.

DW also articulates the principles and agenda of an MC very well. I found myself regularly looking at them when deciding how to narrate one of my moves and finding a lot of great guidance. The moves for each danger also helped out immensely. When a player failed to hit a goblin, rather than just getting stabbed I saw “activate a primitive trap” and “sound the alarm” and thought those moves would be a lot more fun to play out…and they were.

Final thoughts

This article was pretty critical. I don’t mean it ask a knock on Dungeon World as much as it is a clear signal to me of what types of games I want to play.

Also, it’s worth looking at why I enjoyed the game the first time I played it, and was so frustrated the second time. Some thoughts on that. The first time I played it I saw a lot or risk-averse play but blamed that on old school players. Having run it I can see how the system was encouraging risk-aversion rather than risk-taking. The first time I played I was a fighter that did a lot of damage. I was unlucky on my roll+str but very lucky on my damage rolls. The result was when I rolled 6- bad things happened to me (as I expected) and when I rolled a 10+ I accomplished my goals (as expected). What I didn’t see until watching my players roll hack and slash was how rare those narrative outcomes are. Finally, when I played the fighter, I was really enamored with the “Bend Bards/Lift gates” move and used it as frequently as I could. That move was definitely written with an AW-style narrative resolution. I didn’t try many others that might have led to less satisfying progression in the story.

I’ve played Dungeon World twice. I have some pretty strong sentiments about it but I’m going to give it at least one more try. I’ve been wrong before about games I thought I didn’t like and I hope this is the case with DW.

10 thoughts on “Actual Play – Bloodstone Idol (1/7/2011)”

  1. You articulated my biggest problem (which I brought up at the time) well in this: the cost/benefit disparity that comes from having two random rolls stacked, and leads to a risk averse ‘best move’ scenario that is both not fun as a game, and antithetical to what they’re obviously trying to do with the system.

    As the Wizard, though, I will expand on the ‘feather fall’ note: my issue is that the magic system used in the game is neither dynamic nor sufficiently in-depth. I feel that to be successful, a magic system needs to be one (not both) of these things. A magic system like D&D is very pigeon-holed (spells have very limited scopes), but is sufficiently broad in its reach that it’s not a problem – anything you may want to do (at your power level) is probably doable using one of your many spells (if you’ve learned the appropriate one). A magic system like Mage is extremely dynamic, while being limited in its explicit scope – you can accomplish virtually anything (within your sphere and power level) that you can imagine, you just have to figure out what the effect looks like. Both of those approaches work for me – they’re very different in their execution, and I have my preference (dynamic), but I’m happy playing either.

    My issue with Dungeon World’s magic system was that it was both very pigeon-holed (spells were virtually indistinguishable from their D&D counterparts), but also had an incredibly limited scope – with seven, mostly detective, first level spells, it was unlikely I could plan for most situations, hence ‘where is my feather fall’.

    You mentioned, and I think you’re correct, that they were likely trying to make spells analogous to other class moves (which are also very finite). While I tend to agree, the problem is that the core function of those other classes (at least Thief/Fighter) seems more inherently dynamic. Combat can be spun many different ways, and the same roll can be used to accomplish many different things. Or maybe I would have found it equally stifling as another class, I’m not sure. All I know is that I consistently felt like I was being told by the system that I could only use the exact tools in my toolbox, and then shown a very spare toolbox.

    That said, I enjoyed the scenario, and I enjoyed the way you ran it – but I’m pretty confident I would have actually enjoyed it more in a different system (even d20, which is a system I rather dislike).

  2. Thanks for fleshing that out Brenden, I knew I wasn’t doing your argument justice. I think that being stifled by the moves came up for other players as well (how to I just throw a guy off a ledge, how do I sneak in, how do I make an offer of something when the something is a lie, how do I trick someone into drinking my water) but I totally get that as a Wizard you expect to be fairly weak with it comes to physical altercations but expect your “Shazam” to help you solve mysteries and move the story along on a mystic level.

    Like we talked about your most interesting move was “Spout Lore” which was sufficiently diverse to do both of those, so I think was some success there. The game just needed more moves that were broad enough to cover all the actions the players wanted to take.

  3. As for the bit about not being sure what move to use — well, I definitely would’ve used Parley for the thief trying to trick the goblin. He’s making an offer, right? That implies he has something the goblin wants, which means he has leverage, which means… Parley.

    On Scouting: As a rule, I tend to focus on where the excitement or danger is going to be. Is it dangerous to scout ahead? (Or do I want it to be?) If so, Defy Danger. Is it dangerous to get the wrong information? Discern Realities. Pick the one that’s more interesting to you and have him roll that. (I’m sorta inclined to go with Discern Realities, with the assumption that they sent the thief because he’s stealthy — so you can just narrate how sneaky he is without the need to Defy Danger. Did they send the cleric instead? Well, that’s guy’s not sneaky at all, so Defy Danger — and if he makes it there, give him some good info up front, and if he wants to take the extra time to actively Discern Realities on top of that, let him roll.)

    And I would’ve killed that goblin who ran off the edge. Yeah, the damage wasn’t sufficient, but c’mon. It was a clever idea and I would’ve rewarded it accordingly.

    1. Hey Mike, regarding the scouting, yeah I think you’re dead on. Use the move that achieves the end they want, that has the most interesting results, and that focuses on the moment of danger.

      As for the edge, yep, in retrospect I should have made the move Defy Danger and said if you make it he goes off, if not many other fun things could happen.

      The lie was trick though. Because the thief didn’t know if he had something he could offer the goblin, so he started making stuff up and lying… when he rolled a 7 (which he did) it was time to show what had, which he was lying about it’s worth. Thinking on it more, when he couldn’t I should have just said “he eyes you for a moment, pinches his nose at you and says “no gold, no bridge” and then cuts the rope bridge out from under you.” It would have actually made for more fun from that point on.

  4. Twice my players tried this move. “I’m standing next to the edge, when the goblin charges as me, I step out of the way and throw him over.” They succeeded, rolled damage and I described him landing on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. Not thrown over the edge. Why not? They didn’t do enough damage. On a 10+ he should have gone sailing, but my interpretation of the rules told me otherwise. That resulted in a very unsatisfying resolution for the players.

    I would have had the player roll Defy Danger for this; 10+ the goblin goes flying.

    DW tells players to be great heroes and is written as though they have the competence of their AW counterparts, but they don’t. So not only is it foddering a risk-averse play style, it is lying to the players and the MC.

    I see what you’re saying, but my experience is the opposite. I feel hyper-competent in DW and not in AW.

    When the thief tried to make an offer to the goblin, but lied to him, I thought Parley was the move to use, but Parley assumes that you are offering something they want or need. The question here is whether or not the thief could tell a convincing lie so they goblin believed he had something he wanted.

    I agree that this is a problem. Many of my DW games are more wilderness/urban sandboxes than the dungeon crawl style I think DW expects.

    Sneak is similar, but that feels pretty naturally like defy danger to me, so not a problem for me.

    1. Generally, this sounds like an expectation mis-match (It’s not just a setting re-skin, AW = drama, DW = action/adventure), but you raise some interesting points. I’ll have to think on this further.

      1. Yep, in general I forgive DW for the lack of scarcity, specifically because of the design intentions (action/adventure vs. drama), but in practice I found myself striving to create the dramatic tension anyway. Which just ended up meaning more work for me to create the play environment I wanted. So, I get that is my own personal preference rather than any flaw with the game.

  5. Sean,

    Your thoughts on DW very much mirror my own. I couldn’t figure out what I did’t like but it was something to do with the way the moves used in combat worked in play.

  6. Lack of Desperation:
    This never bothered me, but I follow your reply to Hamish.

    Tactics Stacked on Top of a Narrative:
    I agree with a lot of what you say. In general a monster is just an obstacle on your way to more cool stuff and making the player perform lots of small rolls instead of just one is only slowing down the pace of the fiction. But – the ways we choose to fight that monster can be very interesting and worth going into blow-by-blow detail about. If we’re not just rolling Hack and Slash and whittling down hit-points, there’s coolness to be gleaned from Defy Dangers and Defends in a combat.

    Shoe-horned moves:
    The move I actually find the most cumbersome is Discern Realities. I’d like it to be something like:

    P: “I slip into the Golden Chamber with my usual cat-like grace and examine all the Mistress’ ointments, tinctures and potions. OOC: Discern Realities [Roll] What here is useful or valuable to me?”
    GM: “Cool! Most of the items are unlikely tonics and medicines, but you also see a flask made of black snake-skin – it almost certainly contains poison.”

    But it’s usually something like:
    P: “Okay, so we’re in a new room, I’d like to Discern Realities [Roll] … What here is useful or valuable to me?”
    GM: “There’s a vial of poison. And the Mistress’ last will and testament. And a key which will unlock the tower that contains the orb that you need to free your brother.”
    Not only are we assuming the player’s character is just ransacking the place for all valuables (perhaps not a bad assumption), we also get fed a bunch of info about a key which the character would have had no way to infer.

    It’s really tempting to just use the questions without setting them up fictionally. And if the player doesn’t set things up in the fiction, or sometimes even if they do, the GM feels they can just answer with anything – because we’re in OOC speak. I think “What happened here recently?” and “What is about to happen?” are especially easy to abuse with meta-info-dumps.

    Anyway. I think there’s a way to use Discern Realities to great effect but I think I’m still honing that skill.

    (Going to hazard a guess this was written after playing some earlier version of DW? Defying Danger with Charisma and making up your own spell effects as a Wizard (Ritual) are totally a thing now.)

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